Episode #048: New Statistics on Volunteering & Civic Life with Dr Mary Hyde

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas on how to build, grow, and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson. And if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity, cause, membership, or movement, I made this podcast just for you.   

Welcome everybody to another episode of the Volunteer Nation Podcast. I am continuing the month of data geek out, gang! We have had so much conversation about data in the volunteering sector. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.  

I love data. I love research. I think it helps inform our practice. And so today we have Dr. Mary Hyde, who’s director of Research and Evaluation at AmeriCorps, and she’s going to talk about the volunteering and civic life data that just came out a little bit ago. 

You know, this month we kicked off Volunteer Nation with episodes 40 and 41, where I chatted with our marketing manager Jamie here at VolunteerPro, about what we learned from our Volunteer Management Progress Report survey of volunteer program administration pros around the world.  

We also talked with Dr. Sue Kahl and Nathan Dietz about the state of volunteer engagement through their perspectives of nonprofit executives and funders. That’s in episode 47, and we’ll put all these links in the show notes.  

And today we are pleased to cover volunteerism from the volunteer perspective, or at least in terms of the actions volunteers are taking and people in the community are taking. And discuss new statistics on volunteering in civic life with Dr. Mary Hyde. So I am really excited to be here.  

Let me just tell you a little bit about our guest, and then we’ll get it kicked off. So Dr. Mary Hyde is the AmeriCorps Director of Research and Evaluation, the organization’s hub for the creation of the agency-wide strategies and insights based on analysis of raw data. 

The department provides essential evidence-based metrics that directly influence agency decision making. And by the way, if you’re interested in more about AmeriCorps, episode 43 we talked with Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom about how to tap AmeriCorps grants and resources.  

So Dr. Hyde’s from that organization. She’s a community psychologist with more than 20 years of research evaluation, technical assistance and training experience in social and human services. She’s also responsible for advancing the evidence base for national service programs, sponsoring scholarship on volunteering and other forms of civic engagement, as well as fostering a culture of evaluative thinking within the agency and the field.  

So Dr. Hyde, so happy to have you here with us today. 

Mary: Thank you, Tobi. It’s a pleasure to be here today. I’m very excited! 

Tobi: Yeah, and we were just talking before we got going that we haven’t had this data for a while, so it’s really exciting to talk about what’s happening with volunteers in our world.  

But before we do that, Mary, would you tell our audience about yourself and what you do? 

Mary: Sure. Thank you for that background on myself. I think you covered a lot of the highlights, but I think I could probably supplement that a bit by a adding a little bit more detail about how I got into this specific role, and how I really got interested in the space of research in the nonprofit sector as well as volunteering. 

I think two pivotal things really led me to this position and this agency and this work. One, right after I graduated from college, I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and so I did a year of service and that year of service transformed the way in which I thought about my career. 

And that included what I wanted to do as a professional, which then in turn led me to a program in human services psychology where I specialized in community and social psychology. And not surprisingly, a lot of that work was in the space of nonprofit organizations that provide a lot of important human services to folks in communities across the nation.  

And so, as a researcher in my training and research, it was a pretty natural sort of transition into looking at these worlds of practice and research and how one can inform the other, which was very critical in terms of this role that I play today as the Director of Research at AmeriCorps. 

Because I think understanding the data around volunteering behavior and a range of civic participation behavior and how that can lead to solid practice in organizations so that they can advance their own missions and accomplish their own goals is really critical. So it’s a really, I think, comfortable space and how it got me to this place today. 

Tobi: Yeah. That’s awesome. So what does volunteerism, national service, and civic engagement mean to you? Why, why do you think that matters, tose kinds of activities matter, in today’s world?  

Mary: I think these activities are critical in today’s world in a broad and big picture sense. I think that volunteerism, national service, and civic engagement – this constellation of behaviors – is an important pathway to human connection. 

It’s an essential pathway to human connection. It’s an essential part of our social fabric in communities, and ultimately, in my opinion, I think it matters because these types of activities constitute the civic life of our communities and our country. And a vibrant civic life is sort of the cornerstone of democracy. 

And so for me, as a person that works in AmeriCorps and given our mission, I think these are essential activities for all of those reasons. And to get a little bit more in the weeds of how I would define that, I think that AmeriCorps and my office define civic engagement as the constellation of activities that individuals engage in to make a difference in their communities. 

And, you know, civic engagement includes participation within and beyond electoral politics at all geographic levels. Volunteerism is a prominent example of civic engagement, but it also includes activities like attending public meetings, belonging to organizations, and neighbors doing favors for each other. 

So again, social fabric, cornerstone of democracy. These are all important things, and national service is one part of that narrative and that that story.  

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely, and I couldn’t agree more about the connections. You know, I feel like social capital is often built through these types of community activities and that human beings have a giving, you know, a compassion gene.  

We’re sort of genetically predisposed to help one another. And we’re going to get into the data in a little bit, but I think that was not squelched at all by the pandemic. In fact, in some areas, I think it was even promoted further.  

But before we get into that, let’s talk about a little – because we have a global audience, so I’m not sure everybody knows about AmeriCorps. Maybe share a little bit about AmeriCorps, what it is today and maybe a little bit of history for folks who may not know much about it. 

What’s the goal of the organization? A little bit about its recent history and that kind of thing, just so everybody can have a context for where and how this research was conducted.  

Mary: Oh, absolutely. Yes. So for those of you who are not familiar with AmeriCorps, we are a federal agency here in the United States, and we engage 200,000 Americans each year across nearly 40,000 locations in sustained and results-driven service through its young adult and older American programs. 

AmeriCorps members nationwide, in return for the service of those members have earned more than 4.4 billion to use further, to use to further their own educational goals. In other words, they earn educational awards at the completion of their service.  

And since 1994, more than 1.25 million AmeriCorps members have taken the AmeriCorps pledge to get things done for America through the AmeriCorps State National, AmeriCorps Vista, and AmeriCorps CCC programs. 

So in essence, our mission is to facilitate civic engagement and participation through national service programs as well as volunteering.  

Tobi: Yeah. And for those of you who know, back in the day the Corporation for National and Community Service, it was rebranded to AmeriCorps. I would say two years ago. Am I right about that?  

Mary: I think that’s about right. Two to three years ago. Yep. 

Tobi: So, if you’ve heard about the Corporation for National Community Service Research on volunteering, this is a continuation of that. Is that correct?  

Mary: That’s correct. That’s right.  

Tobi: Awesome. So let’s talk about the Volunteering and Civic Life in America research. I don’t remember when, and maybe you will. I think it used to be Volunteering in America only, and at some point civic engagement or civic life was added into the data set. Is that correct?  

I feel like that was several, many moons ago, but there was a point where civic engagement got added and the expansion of how people contribute and support one another in communities was. There was additional data brought in. Am I on the right track here?  

Mary: You are absolutely on the right track. Your memory serves you well and yes, I’m happy to sort of walk through at a high level that timeline. You are absolutely correct. So I’ll just give you a little bit of history and sort of talk about the integration of these additional types of activities and how that fits in. 

So this body of research really started after 9/11. There was a renewed interest in systematically studying civic engagement in America. And AmeriCorps entered into an agreement with the US Census Bureau to conduct a nationally representative survey about volunteerism, which is attached to the current population survey.  

And so I’m sure as many of you know, the current population survey is a large federal survey that has been the primary source of labor force statistics since the 1940s. So each month, the US Census Bureau administers a core set of questions to a nationally representative sample of American households.  

The responses are the key source, or source of key indicators, like the national unemployment rate. So each month the census also attaches supplemental questions about a whole range of topics such as education, voting, fertility, all added to this core module around unemployment and employment behaviors. 

Supplement sponsors are typically federal agencies interested in understanding trends relevant to their work in the general population. So AmeriCorps began sponsoring the CPS volunteering supplement in 2002, as you said.  

And then over the next several years, there was an increasing interest in looking at a broader range of civic behaviors. So we launched the civic engagement supplement in 2008. So yes, there was a bit of a lag in adding additional types of civic engagement behaviors.  

What perhaps has also contributed to some of your confusion and maybe others, is that we decided to merge these two supplements in 2017. So we focus pretty exclusively on formal volunteering. We added another supplement on additional civic engagement behaviors, and then we decided to combine them into one supplement, and we switched to a biennial data collection schedule.  

So now what we call this is The Current Population Survey: Civic Engagement and Volunteering Supplement. And there were a number of reasons for why that happened, but in essence, we’ve conducted the most robust longitudinal survey about volunteerism and the other forms of civic engagement in the US in partnership with the US Census Bureau for the last two decades. 

Since 2017, we’ve conducted the survey every two years. And the latest research that I think we’re going to dive into today looks at organizational volunteering, helping others informally, and 15 other civic behaviors from September of 2020 to September of 2021, which as we all know, was the height of the Covid 19 pandemic. 

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. So for folks that’s interesting because I thought that it was associated with the regular, the main census we’re kind of all familiar with as citizens in the US. But actually – and I have gotten a supplemental survey at some point.  

I remember getting it. I was like, oh, this is what the supplemental survey. And I told my husband, this is the census supplement. I know what this is because this is how we get volunteer data. So these supplements are going out to, I’m assuming a statistically relevant sample size, which isn’t the whole population. 

We’re not trying to get the whole census here. We’re trying to get a statistically relevant sample size that we can say, if we were to dip our bucket in whatever part of the water, if we dipped our ladle into a bucket of water, wherever we dip the bucket.  

This is the way I think about statistically relevant sample sizes. Wherever I would dip that ladle in a bucket, I would get the same tasting water no matter what.  

And so these are going out monthly and different federal agencies can say to the Census Bureau, “Hey, we’d like to have some questions. We’d like to have some questions added to the supplement.” Am I getting that right? 

Mary: You’ve got that right. That’s right. So, you know, the census is sort of the gold standard for collecting nationally representative data. As you said, it’s a statistically valid. It represents the landscape of American citizens.  

And you know, they have invested a lot of time and resources into making sure that the current population survey is a nationally representative sample because of its critical role in things like determining the unemployment rate and all of the policy considerations tied to that. 

So these supplements are able to capitalize on that statistical sampling and that representativeness so that, again, any topic, whether it’s volunteering in civic engagement or anything else, you’re tapping into the perspective of America in essence.  

Tobi: Right, right. Absolutely. And so for this particular study research we’re talking about right now, which is the most recent volunteering and civic life in America data, how did you go about choosing the questions to pose? 

And you know, you used various definitions. We talked a little, you talked a little bit about formal volunteering within organizations, but also informal helping, and you talked about some other civic behaviors. How did you go about deciding what to ask, and how did you help define for the survey recipient? 

Because I often hear people, sometimes they’ll say, “Well, the volunteering rates are low because people don’t understand all the variety of ways that volunteering happens.” And I’ve heard folks, researchers talk about this survey and they say, “Well, no, actually we phrase it pretty clearly so people know what we’re talking about.” 

So walk us through the questionnaire, the questions, the design of the questionnaire, and the types of questions being asked.  

Mary: Sure, sure. Happy to. And you’re right. I mean, for the survey researchers out there, I think we can all appreciate that in the development of any survey, the wording and the order of every question is so systematically tested. 

Cognitive interview testing happens so that there is intentional effort to make sure that people understand the question being asked, and that we are actually measuring what we think we’re measuring. So that’s just to sort of build on your point.  

I think it’s a very important point, but to more directly answer your question, this survey is based on decades of scholarship, including a 2014 report by the National Academy of Sciences that gathered experts in this field to develop recommendations about how to measure these behaviors. 

So reflecting on the richness of civic life in America, it captures a broad range of civic behaviors for more traditional activities like charitable giving to more recent trends like buying or boycotting products based on social values. 

So, for example, we define formal volunteering as giving time freely to help others through an organization. And to get even more specific in this supplement, the measure is phrased like this. So the actual question that you would be asked as you completed this survey is: In the past 12 months, did you spend any time volunteering for any organization or association?  

To give you another example on how we define informal helping, this is giving time freely to help others outside of an organizational context. So again, in the supplement, the specific question or measure is: In the past 12 months, how often did you or your neighbors do favors for each other, such as housesitting, watching each other’s children, lending tools and other things to help each other.  

So this is the gold standard on this topic. The CEV generates extremely reliable estimates at the national and state level, and for the largest 12 metropolitan statistical areas. It is really the US Census Bureau’s highest threshold for reliability.  

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. And I wanted to just call that out because I hear people sometimes saying, well, you know, volunteering, it’s not clear in the public’s mind what it means. And I’ve said, well, these researchers really do a really good job at trying to figure out, like to make the absolutely most valid instrument they can create. 

And based on years and years and years, as you said, decades, like, you know, two decades worth of data collection. It’s been fantastic. You know, I’ve been following this for a long time and it’s been fantastic and interesting to see the major.  

Right before the pandemic, there was a huge spike in volunteering. And now we have a major drop. And I think partly because, you know, obviously because of the pandemic, there haven’t been opportunities, organizations had to close their doors.  

And so, and we’re hearing anecdotally and through our own Volunteer Management Progress Report that, you know, volunteer recruitment and building back the corps of volunteers is still a struggle, I think for nonprofits. 

Let people know, or help people understand when the survey questionnaire went out.  

Mary: Yeah, the data set that we’re talking about right now was sent in September of 2020. So, you know, this administration really was in the midst of the height of this pandemic. So this data truly captures these behaviors, formal volunteering and other types of civic behaviors while we were all smack in the middle of this. 

So, it’s a really interesting data point to have both to compare to prior to the pandemic as well as moving forward. 

Tobi: Absolutely. The next round is going to being to be great to track across three sets of data. Well, let’s take a quick break and then we’ll be right back to really drill into the data itself. 

Thanks so much for helping me talk about methodology. Because I like to talk about methodology a little bit. I’m a little bit of a geek like that and I know some of our listeners like to understand how the data’s collected. 

But we’ll be right back after this break with a discussion around the recently released statistics on volunteering in civic life with Dr. Mary Hyde of AmeriCorps. So don’t go anywhere.  

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Okay, we’re back with our discussion of the recently released statistics on volunteering and civic life with Dr. Mary Hyde. So let’s get into what the research says and how it might impact our volunteer engagement strategies. 

So Mary, the big question, what do the recent statistics on volunteering tell us about the state of volunteerism in the US and the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic?  

Mary: Sure. I would say that even during a global pandemic, this data tells us that Americans continue to help each other. So this is cause for both a celebration and a little bit of concern. 

So the concerning part, as I think you’ve already mentioned, is that there was a dip, right? So the formal volunteering rate dropped seven percentage points from 30% in 2019 to 23% in 2021, which is the largest change since AmeriCorps and the US census began collecting this data in 2002.  

There is a cause for celebration, however, despite this seven percentage point drop. And that is this, that Americans continue to help each other. So we had, even in the height of the pandemic, 23% of Americans, or 60.7 million people formally volunteered through organizations between September 2020 and September 2021, giving more than 4.1 billion hours of service with an estimated economic value of $122.9 billion. 

In addition to that, nearly 51% of Americans, or 124.7 million people informally helped their neighbors between September 2020 and 2021. The rate of Americans helping each other informally or about half of the general population remains stable between 2019 and 2021. A third of Americans informally helped their neighbors at least once a month in this period. 

So again, in the height of this pandemic, you still saw people showing up for each other in a variety of ways.  

Tobi: Yeah. I think that was one of the things that stood out for me, is the informal rate did not change. People were like, look, we’re still going to help one another. And what it also kind of tells me is, not as many nonprofits as we would potentially like. 

Now I know not all nonprofits could deliver services or work on their missions during the pandemic to the level they wanted, but we also had a high hope, I think when the pandemic just started as practitioners and those who support practitioners, that organizations would really get creative about bringing on more remote volunteer opportunities and continue to engage their volunteer course. 

And I think people really struggled with that. And in some cases, you know, if it’s an arts and culture organization, they couldn’t have, you couldn’t host concerts anymore and there really wasn’t anything for volunteers to do, right?  

So when I look at these data, always those are the kinds of things that make me go hmm. And you know, good research leads to good questions. All good research leads to more questions in my mind. So those were some things that came up for me. What surprised you about the data, Mary?  

Mary: Well, like you said, the nonprofit sector, education organizations, a lot of the world shut down. And so while we were aware that organizations were hit hard by the pandemic as everyone was, it really wasn’t until we dug into this data that we saw the magnitude of the dip and the challenges.  

The data spoke, and it really showed us how much formal volunteering was affected alongside all of the other challenges that the pandemic created. So that was a surprise. Certainly it was the most significant drop we’ve seen since we started administering these supplements.  

And that’s pretty big in the world of statistics. It’s a lot, but I would say that the other surprise, which was a pleasant surprise for me, was that it really did affirm, you know, our humanity. It affirmed that we would continue to help each other, that we would show up for each other, and that we remain committed to doing so. 

And I think the data bears that out as well. You know, as you’ve already pointed out, the informal helping stayed strong. Other civic behaviors stayed strong. And so while I think we’ve had a tendency historically to focus on the very important role that volunteering plays inside of organizations, I think that data also speak to the power of the ways in which people found to continue to show up for each other in their community.  

And just as another very specific and more perhaps relevant example that’s AmeriCorps specific, we still had our members show up. We had our national programs that continued to run, and we have a little bit of data from that as well.  

So, as an example, we learned through our member exit survey, we asked some similar questions of folks who are leaving their year of service through AmeriCorps State National and CCC or Vista. You know: Do you continue to to participate in your community after your service here with us?  

And so we saw by analyzing this data, that despite a decline in formal volunteering in the general population from 2019 to 2021, we saw stability in the impact of national service on our members’ likelihood of volunteering during this period.  

So people again showed up broadly in their communities, but our national service members also showed up. So I think this suggests that at a time when volunteering through organizations declined substantially in the general population, national service continued to be a catalyst for enhancing volunteering capacity in America. 

And I think it’s been critical to helping us rebuild from the pandemic. Programs like National Service, the programs that AmeriCorps runs, I think are a very key component of keeping volunteerism alive and well in their local communities.  

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. And in some cases, national service members are part of the capacity building team at nonprofits around volunteer engagement. You know, they’re setting up sort of structures and enabling infrastructure and getting out in communities and getting people connected.  

So I love that. I love that they continue to stay engaged. When I was looking at the data, I started to wonder if the decline in volunteerism, because that drop in seven points is, and I think that’s the lowest rate that’s during that time was the lowest rate in the last 20 years. 

I think I have a bar chart somewhere where I added the data. But I started to wonder if the decline was relatively equal across the board in formal volunteering. Were there some outliers in some states or metro areas where they actually didn’t lose as much?  

And I’m just wondering if there were any folks, any areas where people were not feeling the hit as much as others. Was there any change or was it pretty much consistent across all of the geographic areas?  

Mary: I think that’s a really good question. The formal volunteering rate declined in all states except for one, and that was Wyoming. But the extent of those declines varied substantially. 

To your point, this was the most significant decline, but there was geographic variation in how substantial that was. So we saw even more geographic variation in changes in the informal helping rates. 

The informal helping rate dropped by more than three percentage points in 14 states and increased by more than three percentage points in eight states. So there was a wide range there, and we suspect that one factor was the impact of Covid. And that’s one of the things that’s part of our analytic plan.  

We want to do a deeper dive in what might account for some of this geographic variation in both formal volunteering and informal helping rates. And we’ve done some studies, some of our research grantees have done some studies, that suggest that community level contextual factors could play a significant role in local volunteering rates.  

So as an example, we have a research grantee at the University of Georgia that has found that different places have different levels of civic endowments such as religiosity that really matter for volunteering rates.  

So those trends, those differences by geography that we have noted, I think can be explained by other factors, and that’s part of what we plan to continue analyzing through our empirical data.  

Tobi: Interesting. It’s always fascinating to wonder what are the enabling factors? What’s the infrastructure, which communities or helping organizations like the state service commissions, for example, are making volunteerism and the promotion of volunteerism a priority.  

You know, it’s hard to – there’s a lot of correlations there. It’s hard to really point to one as the cause. But I find it fascinating to analyze what’s the context where more vibrant or more resilient volunteering happens and where it doesn’t. And again, there’s like a million confounding variables there. 

Mary: I couldn’t agree more. There’s a ton of factors that contribute to these relationships, but also it’s sort of a self-perpetuating relationship as well. So, you start perhaps in a place of civic participation in life and that can build on each other or not. So you’re absolutely right.  

There’s a ton of things that one would need to tease out through analytical methods, through research design, and this data set in and of itself just begs for more questions, as you’ve already pointed out.  

This just makes you want to ask a ton of different questions and look at a different set of analyses to address the complexity. You know, this is just sort of the tip of the iceberg and the teaser, if you will.  

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. So in terms of these statistics on volunteering, let’s talk about volunteer demographics because your data set does include demographics of volunteers. 

Which populations were most engaged in volunteerism and which in helping neighbors? Were there some interesting connections or outliers that you want to share?  

Mary: Yeah, I think there’s some interesting relationships to talk about here. So for example, nationally informal helping rates held pretty steady regardless of background in terms of age, gender, parental status, and military service. 

There was one exception to this pattern, and that was the educational backgrounds of folks who responded to the survey. So whereas the national informal helping rate was stable for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, it drops substantially by four percentage points among those with less than a high school degree. 

We saw similar drops in the formal volunteering rate, regardless of age or military service. Yet unlike with informal helping the extent of declines in the national formal volunteering rate varied by gender, parental status, and education.  

The drop in formal volunteering was substantially larger for women than men with an eight percentage drop for women versus a five percentage point drop for men. The drop in formal volunteering was substantially larger for parents of children under 18 than people without children in their household.  

So parents of children under 18 saw a drop by nine percentage points, whereas people without children in their household saw a drop in six percentage points. We also find that the drop in formal volunteering was substantially larger for those with more education. 

So for example, the formal volunteering rate of Americans without a high school degree declined five percentage points from 2019 to 2021 compared to nine percentage points among those with a bachelor’s degree.  

So these trends are in line with other data we’ve seen about the impact of covid on women and parents. So they may not be terribly surprising to your listeners, but there were some differences by demographic.  

Tobi: Yeah. I immediately thought moms who became homeschoolers. So I was like, can I volunteer? No, I cannot because I’m right now volunteering to school my kids.  

Mary: Yes, yes, yes. So some of these differences, I think, will be quite intuitive for folks out there. 

Tobi: Yeah. Were there any, did these trends or any others around demographics surprise or confirm what you thought?  

Mary: I mean, they didn’t surprise me really. You know, as you’ve really quite nicely pointed out repeatedly, there’s a lot of correlations here and this is not a data set that allows one to talk about cause and effect and things like that. 

But I think, you know, on face value, some of these differences across women and men, or folks who are parents or folks who are not…pretty common sense. That tracks, that makes sense. You know, as you’ve stated, a lot of women had to take the role on as teachers, on top of parents, on top of working. 

So some of this stuff I think is pretty intuitive. So I wouldn’t say the formal volunteering differences were terribly surprising. And I think in terms of the informal helping rates, again this speaks to the range of ways in which people engage in their community and help one another. 

And I think that the fact that this is something that everyone can do informally, help one another. I think that tracks as well with the data.  

Tobi: Yeah. Yeah. Interesting. So let’s talk about implications. What do you think these statistics on volunteering have for, what implications do they have for volunteer involving organizations? 

What are maybe paradigms, frameworks, strategies you think they might consider? Of course, you know, we’re just sort of interpreting the data at this point and talking about what wider implications it might have for practice on the ground level. I’m just wondering what your thoughts are on that. 

Mary: Yeah, absolutely and I think the real power of data like this is to inform and guide practice on the ground. I mean, people want information so they can do better, and so I think that there’s a lot of important implications for us all to consider.  

Again to repeat, I think that all said and done this research is still telling us a positive story about civic life and the range of behaviors that people engage in to strengthen their communities. Neighbors continue to help neighbors. Americans continue to step up for their communities.  

And I think, as you’ve already alluded to in our conversation, we’ve seen a lot of adaptations from nonprofits during the pandemic. You know, this was a moment to pivot to virtual opportunities where it was possible. 

As you’ve said, it wasn’t always possible, but people created learning pods. There was virtual tutoring, there was virtual mentoring. There was moving food delivery to outdoor spaces. So it created some innovation, it increased the use of protective equipment and air purifiers to make it safer to volunteer. 

So people took some of the tools that the pandemic created to continue to ensure that volunteering could happen. And even now, organizations should be asking themselves in their communities, what can we keep from this period of adaptation and innovation that can make volunteering even more sustainable and accessible in the long term? 

I think this research is also a call to action for institutions that rely on formal volunteering. It’s time to get creative about how we design volunteering and service opportunities. We recently talked about this data with the US Surgeon General, and he has described loneliness as an epidemic in our country that is taking its toll on our physical and mental health. 

People are creating connection. I think, as I stated earlier, this is a pathway to human connection and volunteer-based organizations have an enormous opportunity to fill this gap. And institutions should continue to focus on creating these pathways to connection for friendship, for mentorship, through obviously maybe even opportunities for employment. 

These organizations often use volunteering as an on-ramp to future employment. I think that making volunteer opportunities more accessible can mean addressing some real barriers to volunteering that maybe even came to light even more during the pandemic, like the cost of gas, groceries, housing, your childcare commitments as you’ve already referenced, the time constraints that you people can face. 

And I think this is data that says to us, “Hey, how do we make this something that a mom juggling 30 things could also contribute to in some way?” And I think we need to continue to be creative about our incentives and our outreach. You know, it’s not enough anymore to fly our neighborhood or put up a single tweet and hope that someone can Google us and find us at some other point. 

So I think these data and what we’ve learned through the pandemic has taught us that we need to meet people where they are. We met people where they are in one of the worst crises of our world, our country, the world. And this is an opportunity for us to not lose what we learned and how we all pivoted in a time of crisis. 

Tobi: Yeah, could not agree more. I love, not that I love that folks are having mental health and physical health crises lately due to the pandemic, you know, long covid, mental health issues, you name it, people being isolated. But it’s really, I like the idea of a call to action to volunteering as a way of promoting physical and mental health outcomes, positive outcomes, because there’s been plenty of research on that. 

It also made me think. You know, informal volunteering was hardly impacted. People continued to help one another and I think people are going to continue to do that because it’s part of our genetic makeup and because we are a clan type of species. 

You know, the human race is, that’s how we’ve survived this long on the planet is that we know how to help one another and it’s just something we do. And I wonder if formal volunteer organizations either could think about ways to help their informal volunteers in their communities so that that is enabled even more and done safely and done effectively.  

Or if there’s a way to make formal volunteer opportunities more flexible so that people in communities will want to work with organizations rather than only work on their own. Do you have any thoughts on that? That’s what it brought up to me. I was like, volunteering’s happening somewhere. People are helping. 

Mary: Absolutely. And I think my take on your point there is this is something that people do. This is something that half of America is just doing alone and on their own volition, because of all of the reasons I think you’ve mentioned. 

This is a very human behavior. So how do we tap into that very human motivation? How do we tap in and harness the energy of folks living in communities that you are serving as an organization, who are doing all kinds of things to contribute to their community?  

So you tap into that motivation perhaps by acknowledging that in your outreach efforts and saying, you’re already doing all this great stuff for your community. Here’s another way in which you can do that, and you can do it through this organization because we are doing this in your community. This is our mission.  

So I think it’s a way to think about maybe more intentionally tapping into that civic spirit that’s already alive and well in your community.  

Tobi: Absolutely. Absolutely. And you know, it kind of flies in the face. You know, sometimes when an organization, I work with a lot of organizations in their recruitment efforts, and sometimes folks will throw up their hands because their recruitment strategy isn’t working and say, “well, people just don’t want to help anymore.” 

And I’ll say, “I don’t think that’s the case. I think you gotta look at your strategy.” It’s like, yeah, people aren’t donating anymore. Well, is it because of the economy or is it because your strategy isn’t good?  

So I think these data, the informal side of the data, that has remained resilient, remains steady, kind of flies in the face of the assertion that people are selfish or uncaring or unwilling to help one another, which is a common myth that’s out there. 

And I think we should celebrate, really lean in to celebrate how fabulous it is that 50% of our population helps one another in one, in some way or another. That is a social fabric of the country. That’s what keeps us together, you know?  

And I don’t think it’s talked about enough, frankly. I don’t know. What are your thoughts on that?  

Mary: I really couldn’t agree with you more. I think this data is absolutely the empirical proof that people do want to help people, do want to contribute to the civic life in their community, and they’re doing it.  

This data says this, and if people are doing this in the middle of a pandemic, then it’s not that people don’t want to. I think it really starts to speak to what you’re saying. What are the best practices? What do we, what is the call to action here?  

What is the opportunity for some inward reflection? What are we doing with our outreach strategies? What are we doing with our recruitment strategies? What are we doing to make volunteering with this organization easy? 

People have a lot of things competing for their attention, yet despite that, they are showing up and helping each other in informal ways, in many other ways. So what are we doing to make showing up to my organization something that’s relatively easy to do?  

So I agree with you. I think it’s about rethinking how do we take the fact that people actually do engage in these types of activities on their own, even in the middle of a pandemic? What does that mean for our practice? What does that mean for our volunteer management practices?  

And to me, that’s the next important conversation. Let’s start thinking about what this says, that it’s not that people don’t want to, it’s not that people stop showing up. It’s that perhaps in this particular space, we need to rethink how people are encouraged to and invited to show up to our organizations.  

Tobi: Yep. Absolutely. Absolutely. I often say to my members and my students, I’ll pose the question, how can you make volunteering easier, not harder. And whatever way that is, it’s a big question, but it it’s important. 

Well, Dr. Mary Hyde, thank you so much for joining me today and for sharing these recent statistics on volunteering. Gang, we will post in the show notes a link to get all of the data. You can peruse the data set as a whole. It’s open source. It’s on the AmeriCorps website.  

But let me ask you, Mary, one last question I like to ask everybody before we wrap up. What are you most excited about in the year?  

Mary: Well, I’m really quite excited about continuing this conversation in a variety of ways and venues, not least of which is AmeriCorps Week that’s coming up. For those of you who are following AmeriCorps, you know, I think this podcast is going to be released if not during AmeriCorps week, then very close to that time period. 

And during this week, we recognize the millions of Americans who have chosen to serve their country through AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps seniors and leaving an impact on generations of Americans. The second full week of March, the country stops to recognize and give thanks to those members and volunteers who raise their hands to help when the need arises. 

They’re often the first on the ground and the last to leave, and just to share a story with you: our CEO, Michael Smith, was recently in Puerto Rico visiting AmeriCorps members who were at the epicenter of community building education, violence prevention, and economic empowerment. 

They’ve been actively involved in recovery and resilience work since hurricanes Maria and Fiona. And when Fiona hit last September, they were well positioned to help respond to demands from the new storm, doing everything from mucking and gutting to connecting neighbors with resources to replacing windows. 

And so it’s stories like these that we’re going to honor and celebrate during AmeriCorps week. So I’m excited to celebrate those who serve. I’m even more excited about encouraging even more people to join AmeriCorps. As you’ve pointed out, AmeriCorps can be a catalyst for other volunteering in your community. 

And so I think it’s a step up into service that the country and communities need, and I think we can all choose to make a difference. As you’ve been saying throughout this conversation, I think service allows you to turn your determination, compassion, creativity, into practical solutions for neighbors and strangers alike. 

And I think whether you’ve just recently graduated, you’ve had a couple of jobs, you’ve retired from a long, productive career, you know, you can serve with AmeriCorps or AmeriCorps seniors, you can show up in your community.  

I think our programs offer flexibility to volunteer or serve where and how you want. With nearly 40,000 locations and thousands of organizational partners, like I’m sure your listener audience includes. AmeriCorps can fit your goals in your lifestyle, whether it’s for a day, one activity a year or more.  

I’m also excited as a way to continue this conversation, we’re going to be hosting our own another webinar. So we are going to be talking about how do we reignite civic life. It’s a continuation of the same themes that you’ve brought up today in your podcast.  

And I think, you know, I would encourage your listeners to show up and listen to that conversation. We’re going to continue to talk about how do we encourage, honor, and celebrate volunteering and national service because it is a powerful way to create solutions for problems that were created by the pandemic, but were also sort of laid bare by the pandemic. 

Tobi: Awesome, awesome. So gang, if you’re thinking about it, national service is a really cool opportunity. You can be retired, you can be before student, you could be mid-career, does not matter. Lots of different ways to participate, so thanks for sharing that.  

Mary, how can people learn more about the research, your work, and how to get in touch with you if they’re interested in learning more, and where do they go if they’re interested in becoming a national service member? 

Mary: Oh, absolutely. So for any of those interests, you can go to americorps.gov. So if you want to serve, you can go to americorps.gov, and you will find your pathway to how you learn more about serving in one of our national service programs.  

If you are among the data geeks among us, you can learn more about this particular research. We have a Volunteering and America landing page on americorps.gov. As you’ve already mentioned, all of the data that we’ve talked about today, as well as the documentation is publicly available. It’s a data landing page on americorps.gov.  

I will repeat, we have a webinar on March 15th. It’s called What is Civic Engagement, Exploring New Paradigms. Again, go to americorps.gov, sign up for this webinar. I think you’ll continue to learn things that matter to you all. 

And you can get in touch with us by reaching out to AmeriCorps cev@cns.gov, so there’s multiple pathways for anything that might interest you and to continue to engage with AmeriCorps, but also this data set and other volunteering opportunities. 

Tobi: Awesome. Dr. Mary Hyde, this has been such a pleasure and I hope you’ll come when you have the next round of data, because we’re going to want to talk about this.  

Mary: Oh, I would love to come back. It’s been my pleasure. And, our next data collection is in September of 2023, s let’s have this conversation again. 

Tobi: Yeah, because if we can compare pre covid, during covid, and post covid –  three points make a trend, y’all!  

Mary: That’s right. I couldn’t agree more with you!  

Tobi: All right. Take care everybody. Thanks for joining us for this another episode of The Volunteer Nation. If you like this episode, I wish you would share it and hope you’ll share it with friends or colleagues.  

And go ahead and like, leave comments for us, subscribe so you get us delivered to your podcast device of your choice and podcast channel of your choice. And we will see you next week, same time. Same place on the Volunteer Nation. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Volunteer Nation Podcast. If you enjoyed it, please be sure to subscribe, rate, and review so we can reach people like you who want to improve the impact of their good cause. For more tips and notes from the show, check us out at Tobijohnson.com. We’ll see you next week for another installment of Volunteer Nation.